MP’s expenses and the e-government agenda

It was long, tiring and in the end, politics as a whole was the loser. But if there is one good thing that comes out of the MPs’ expenses scandal that consumed Westminster for most of May 2009, it is that government transparency, as enabled by Internet technology, is back on the political agenda.

Open government is one of those causes that suit a political party to adopt when in opposition and drop when in power. But such is the current disgust at what MPs were doing behind closed doors this time, that the cause now has some vocal and motivated backing.

The Conservative party was swift to move with its call for all MPs’ expenses to be published online. Gordon Brown said in parliament that he backed the idea, though he left the responsibility with the parliamentary fees office. "I think it is important that there is a transparent system, that when a claim is reported to the fees office, the fees office can then itself put that up on the Internet,” he said. “I hope that will be introduced as soon as possible.”

But MP’s expenses is yesterday’s scandal. Achieving the kind of transparency that could prevent any future scandals would require a cultural overhaul in Westminster.

A case in point: the Labour party’s most vocal proponent of open government was also one of the ministers who resigned their posts after embarrassing details of their expense claims emerged. Tom Watson was Minister for Digital Engagement and a campaigner for open government until the Daily Telegraph revealed that he and a fellow MP had spent £100,000 of tax payers’ money on decorating a flat that they owned. That shows how hard-fought the cultural battle for transparency will be.

But technology can make a difference. On the other side of the Atlantic, President Barack Obama’s administration has conducted some interesting experiments in openness, such as, a website which intends to make government databases available in “machine readable” form.

While these experiments might previously have been passed off as faddish or exclusive in the past, Westminster should now be watching closely.

Tola Sargeant, practice leader of Ovum’s UK IT public sector analyst team, says that technology-led reform is already underway

The MPs’ expenses scandal has already lead to greater demand for government openness and information technology is already playing a part. The most obvious example is the move to publish MP’s expenses claims on the web. More generally, we also expect the use of Web 2.0 to increase as MPs, and the broader government, make a renewed effort to engage with citizens. Web 2.0 – notably sites like Facebook and YouTube – offer a more interactive style of engagement with the general public and, if used well, can enhance the government’s ‘open’ brand value and culture.

Tom Steinberg, founder of MySociety, the group behind MP information portal, says UK voters demand greater transparency

The events of the past month have shown that far from being an esoteric issue for political anoraks, transparency and accountability is actually one of the things that the British people care about most in their representatives. We’ve known this for ages – the two million people who came to TheyWorkForYou last year showed us that. The next big step surely has to be to open the process by which laws are made, hence we are asking all candidates for Speaker to endorse our Free Our Bills campaign.

Pete Swabey

Pete Swabey

Pete was Editor of Information Age and head of technology research for Vitesse Media plc from 2005 to 2013, before moving on to be Senior Editor and then Editorial Director at The Economist Intelligence...

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